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New Models of Scholarly Communication

New forms of digital communication are leading to major changes in the scholarly publishing landscape. Examples include wikis, blogs, microblogs (e.g., Twitter), social media, videos, podcasts, data repositories, real-time posting of research activities, as well as a variety of social-media aware applications such as reference managers, publishing platforms and more.

While these forms of communication are spreading, much effort is needed to better integrate them with the practice and culture of academic work. For example, consider “credit” for one’s work. Though there have always been challenges in certain areas in tracking individual contributions to scholarship, the spreading digital arena has introduced many new complications:

  • How does one determine contribution in group efforts like wiki textbooks?
  • How does one reference social media (e.g., blogs, twitter) appropriately in terms of citations?
  • How does one track individual authors in light of redundant names, pseudonyms, and other issues?

Consider also copyright and intellectual property in these new forms of communication:

  • How does one retain “rights” to work like photos and art and words (if one wants to do that) when they are spread so easily via Twitter and Facebook to millions of people in minutes?
  • How does one get credit for ones work even if one wants to “free” it to the world via open licenses?

Recently, one of us (Eisen) has received a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to experiment with new forms of communication in helping link together multiple fields in the area of studies of “microbiology of the built environment.” In this “microBEnet” ( project we are working on both new forms of communication and also attempting to bring together people from diverse areas including architecture, art, microbiology, engineering, and social media.

Another critical issue we have identified is “openness” of communication. We have found that removing barriers and restrictions in the access, use and reuse of material can help catalyze work. Yet not everyone is comfortable with full, unrestricted openness, for many reasons. For example some are concerned with whether being too open will somehow damage their career advancement (with worries about how they will get credit for their work). Others are worried than openness has limitations in terms of sustainability of funding (e.g., who will host data sets posted on the web?).

The above discussion is just a sample of the issues arising in scholarly publishing related to social media and new forms of digital communication. Overall, every aspect of scholarly communication is being impacted by the changes in the publishing landscape. We propose here to study these new forms of communication and to work to develop new tools for integrating them into the culture of academia. Specifically we propose to focus on research on the following issues:

Year 1: The role and impact of social media on scholarly publishing. Social media, in its many forms, has continued to accelerate in terms of numbers of users and diversity of applications. Some forms have begun to have major impacts on scholarly publishing with examples including blogs and microblogs, wikis, podcasts, video and picture sharing, and crowdsourcing. We propose to study this landscape with particular attention to the interaction of these forms of social media with scholarly publishing and teaching. We will also organize a 2 day workshop on this topic (see “Publish or Perish”).

Year 2: Alternative metrics for assessing scholarly impact. There are many new developments in this area (e.g., see and we are currently experimenting with many of the available tools and systems. However, there is currently little research on how the application and utility of these metrics vary across fields. We propose to study this with a particular emphasis on differences between the sciences (where “altmetrics” are being rapidly adopted) and the humanities (where is is unclear how of if many of the proposed alternative metrics should even be applied).

Year 3: How the “openness” of communication influences impact. This rise of digital communication has been accompanied by major changes in the degree of “openness” of scholarly works. However, the adoption of “openness” varies significantly between fields. For example, in math and physics it is routine to deposit papers in the arXiv prior to submission to journals. In biomedicine, the use of preprint servers has been limited but there has been a spread of full “open access” publishing after peer review. In other fields (e.g., chemistry, many humanities) open access to scholarly papers has not taken off but other materials (e.g., videos) are frequently released with limited restrictions. We propose to study how openness varies between fields and how the degree of openness affects the impact of scholarly works.